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The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: The Complete First Season

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Season: 
1
Studio(s): 
Genre: 
On DVD: 
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Grade:
A
Discs: 
1

HBO is known for taking chances with television, and while The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency does not have the grit of The Wire or the outrageous humor of Sex and the City, it was still a risk to put this lush, quiet show on the air because its very simplicity meant it could be easily overlooked.  I’m so glad they took the chance, and if you didn’t see this gem of a show during its run, I hope you’ll check it out now. 

The seven episodes of the first (and probably only) The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are based on the bestselling series of books written by Alexander McCall Smith.  We follow Precious Ramotswe, a Botswanan woman who uses an inheritance from her father to open a detective agency in Gaborone.  Along with her ambitious but uncertain assistant Grace Makutsi, she solves cases ranging from mysterious deaths to an odd series of break-ins.   Precious and Grace are  aided by her friend and would-be suitor, mechanic JLP Matekone, effervescent hairdresser BK, and her ever-present copy of Principles of Private Investigation.

While the show deviates from the books a bit, it is completely faithful to their spirit and tone.  Precious, in carving out her career, also carves out her place Botswana and those around her are richer for it. The show’s pace is gentle and occasionally meandering, there is as much humor as there is heart, and the mysteries are engaging.  It is refreshing to watch her cases solve through determination, ingenuity, intuition, and luck rather than forensics and it is very easy to care about all of the characters.

Jill Scott is perfect as Precious.  She radiates intelligence, warmth, and hope and plays both strength and vulnerability as expertly as she does both drama and comedy.  Desmond Dube steals many scenes as the hilarious and heartfelt BK while Lucian Msamati gives quiet depth to JLP.  Anika Noni Rose infuses the buttoned-down Grace with an aching vulnerability masked by her cool and controlled demeanor.  Two of my favorite scenes of the series were between Precious and Grace as they shared secrets of their past and gave each other strength in “The Boy with the African Heart,” small examples of this cast’s outstanding chemistry.  The guest stars also shine, especially Colin Salmon as the menacing yet pathetic Note Makote and Emmy nominee CCH Pounder as an American woman seeking her long-missing son.

As much as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a detective show and character study, it is also a love letter to Botswana.  The cinematography is exquisite with stunning vistas and a glorious saturation of color.  Culture and history is dropped into each episode and the show makes excellent use of local music.  Botswanan actors are featured prominently as are indigenous animals, giving the show an impressive realism.  The show also does not shy away from the country’s problems.  Grace’s brother suffers from AIDS and you learn a bit about how HIV/AIDS has ravaged the country.

The set has excellent bonus features.  Alexander McCall Smith does an author’s diary for each episode and there is an interesting look at the making of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana, which did not have a film industry before the series was made.  “Botswana: The Gem of Africa” explores the country so lovingly portrayed in the show and “The Beat of Botswana” looks at the diversity and importance of music in Botswana.  Especially poignant was “Anthony Minghella’s No. 1 Film,” which takes you behind the scenes of the pilot directed by Mr. Minghella not long before he died.

For people used to fast-paced, dark mystery shows, the leisurely pace and rich colors of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may be a bit of a shock, but this big-hearted and truly entertaining series is well worth your time.

Review by Michelle St. James